The Royal Court
Having previously established the world the narrator grew up in, he now becomes an increasingly disillusioned observer. Bob Dylan, representing the forces of revolutionary change that are brewing in American society at this time, is this verse’s primary musical figure, and is used as a symbolic challenge to the older social order represented by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. But by the end of this verse, the Beatles—practicing in the park—are readying a revolution of their own that will sideline Dylan later in the song.
• • •
Now for 10 years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that’s not how it used to be
Though this verse takes place between the years 1963 and 1966, these first lines look back from the year 1970—ten years or so after Holly’s death. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is an old cliché used to describe someone who never puts down roots, but here the cliché is turned on its head, reflecting how the wholesale rejection of conventional values had become commonplace by 1970—and that’s not how it used to be. This line could also foreshadow the anarchy that the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger symbolizes at the song’s climax in verse 5. By 1970 we had lost our way, it seemed. To quote Bob Dylan:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a rolling stone?
• • •
When the jester sang for the King and Queen
And a voice that came from you and me
Following on the previous reference, the Jester here is commonly associated with Bob Dylan, and who is further identified by the James Dean coat he wears on the cover of his late 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—the setting of which also intentionally plays off of the Dean persona, as seen in the photograph below. This also dates the opening of this verse close to the year 1964—a significant year, following as it did the assassination of John Kennedy, and considered by some the year the radical sixties began.Dean is best remembered as A Rebel Without A Cause in the film of the same name—an image of alienated youth and rebellion that fits with Dylan’s role in the music of this period. The “voice that came from you and me” further identifies him—not only did his music work on a more literate and introspective level than anything attempted before in rock ‘n’ roll music, but it was also sung with (and I’m being charitable here) a distinctly unpolished voice. But most importantly, his was the voice of his generation—our voice—as much of his more popular work of this period were songs of protest, putting him at the political forefront of this increasingly rebellious generation. And finally, the Jester is a trickster figure in mythology, serving to advise royal authority through undermining it—certainly a role that Dylan seemed to fill. So Dylan heralded a new order emerging in popular music, and by analogy, the promise of a new order in the culture at large.
And while the King was looking down
The courtroom was adjourned
Presley, as the former voice of a more benign kind of alienation and rebellion to the youth of the 1950s, had by this time become somewhat old news, as this generation anointed Dylan their new spokesman. But even as the poet was in the vanguard of the developing shift away from rock ‘n’ roll’s earlier, simpler thematic roots, the jury was still out on the outcome of America’s emerging cultural revolution—no verdict was returned. As Dylan emerges as rock ‘n roll’s new spiritual leader, the thorny crown is an apt symbol; this is perhaps too a picture of the price of fame.
And while Lennon read a book on Marx
As the sixties revolution builds, rock moves towards a more political and social role, mirroring the changing political climate that would increasingly come to embrace a kind of socialism for America—hence (John) Lennon (of the Beatles, of course) reading a book on (Karl) Marx. And as the writings of Marx proved so influential in Russian leader Vladimir Lenin’s thinking and his role in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the idea of a cultural revolution in the works is obvious. The “quartet” seems to be a reference to the Beatles, juxtaposed as it is to Lennon’s name, and their famous 1966 farewell concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, which marked a turning point in their musical development: retiring from the public eye and the simpler music they came to prominence with, the Beatles grew more and more experimental in their output around this time, and would soon come to significantly change the shape of rock ‘n’ roll, just as Dylan had done before them. Practicing in the park is preparing for this revolutionary role (as is Lennon reading a book on Marx), as their influence on the youth culture of America was about to become even more pronounced. Practicing in the park also foreshadows the football game of the next verse. But for now, Dylan remains the voice of his generation.
And we sang dirges in the dark
• • •